ACA Blog

Ray McKinnis
Jun 20, 2011

Prayer in Therapy: A Dialogue

I was delighted to see Ryan Neace [ACA Blog ‘Prayer in Therapy an Ethical Primer] reply so carefully and thoughtfully to my proposition that prayer should never be used in therapy (unless it is in the context of a specific faith community). One of the opportunities of the ACA blog is to engage in dialogue with fellow counselors. Ryan’s response gives me an opportunity to understand another point of view and clarify further points I have not presented clearly enough.

First of all, concerning ethical thinking: all ethical thinking involves adopting a model or metaphor from human life (a kind of synecdoche) to guide one’s answer to the decision-making question, ‘What is the right thing to do in this situation?’ The Yale ethicist H. Richard Niebuhr in his The Responsible Self conveniently identifies and describes 3 such models that have been used through the ages for ethical discussions: 1. Man-the-law-maker (Aristotle used this model in his discussion of citizenship; many faith communities use this model as they define the conduct required of their members (This is the way they order their community—e.g., the Ten Commandments); 2. Man-the-maker/fabricator (This is the one most of the ACA ethical pronouncements assume as it defines the ideal counselor which we as counselor try to emulate); and 3. Man-in-dialogue/responder (This metaphor has been used more recently, especially by individuals outside any specific community). Note that these three models are incommensurable. I have witnessed too many ethical arguments which are ultimately futile because the participants were adopting different models.

Since this is an ACA blog, we are talking about a particular community of individuals that call ourselves counselors and belong to the ACA. The ACA has rightly developed a code of ethics to help define who we are by what we do or don’t do. Someone outside this community has no ethical obligation to follow this code. This code defines who we are and most of its statements assume the ‘man-the-fabricator’ model where, like a cabinet maker, we picture the ideal and we decide what is right or wrong on the basis of how closely it helps us match that idea. Some of the code, however, seems to slip into one of the other models—which I feel as jarring but, perhaps, necessary.

Ryan’s ethical primer gives a good description of the second model—man-the-fabricator—when he notes that ‘ethicality is experienced and evaluated on a continuum.’ That’s exactly what this model implies. Nothing is either ‘black or white’. The use of visual metaphors such as ‘my vantage point’ (ala, NLP) is also a clue that man-the-maker is guiding the discussion: a cabinet maker has a vision of the ideal and works to realize that vision.

Ryan’s Cognitive-Behavioral Therapeutic approach to therapy also seems congruent because it adopts this metaphor—for each client he seems to have an image of what the client should be to be healthy and works to realize that ‘holistic nature of humans as physical, mental/emotional, social, and spiritual beings.’ Furthermore, he uses such techniques as motivational interviewing/enrichment to help the client come to adopt the picture of healthy functioning he has for them. Most of the traditional psychologies and therapeutic techniques use this metaphor to guide their theories.

His discussion about ‘legality’ being either right or wrong correctly points out the incompatibility of the ‘legal’ model of ethics with that of the ‘fabricator’ model. However, many, if not most, faith communities (and other communities) organize themselves and define themselves by using the ‘legal’ metaphor and presenting their ethical (=ordering) behavior in terms of right or wrong: ‘Thou shalt have no other gods before me,’ ‘Thou shalt not kill’, ‘One must pray toward Mecca 5 times a day,’ etc. I think Paul’s conversion described in several places in the New Testament could be described as an example of his obedience to God being converted from one ethical paradigm to another—from man-the-law maker to man-in-dialogue.

The statement about engaging in a sexual relationship being forbidden is exceptional in the ACA code in that this statement assumes a man-the-law maker model for deciding what is right or wrong. When dual relationships were completely forbidden, it too was using this ‘legal’ model. You either did it or you didn’t. (I’m a little confused when Ryan refers to the ethical codes from the APA and the Florida Psychological Association to clarify how we members of the ACA order ourselves. When we join ACA, we agreed to define ourselves as counselors using the ACA code of ethics. If we join other organizations, we would also obligate ourselves to their ethical system. Ethical systems like the ACA only have authority over those who are members of that community. There is no grand universal ‘ethical code’ for all ‘counselors’. Ethical codes, by their very nature, are ways communities define who they are.)

Personally, as a member of the ACA, I do accept the authority of the ACA code of ethics even with its mixed metaphors—it is an amazing accomplishment as it attempts to spell out who we as counselors are. My own therapeutic approach and my own personal ethical thinking is guided primarily by the third metaphor—man-in-dialogue.

Where Ryan and I differ the most is in the use of the words ‘prayer’ and ‘spiritual’. And this gives me the opportunity to clarify one of the main points I have been developing in all of the ACA blogs I have written concerning incorporating spirituality and religion into counseling. Since he does not define these two words, I have no idea what he is talking about. Without further definition, I have no idea what a ‘spiritual realm’ is or what humans as ‘spiritual beings’ means or what counts as ‘spiritual practices’ or what counts as ‘prayer’. And that is my problem with over 99% of the stuff that is written incorporating the words ‘spiritual’, ‘prayer’, ‘God’, etc. into counseling. We must first clearly define these common terms so that we know what is being referred to.

First, I (and many others) argue that a careful distinction needs to be made between ‘religious’ and ‘spiritual’. Although I realize this is a recent development, I would like to limit the use of ‘religious’ and ‘religion’ to identifiable communities of faith. Within such a community, prayer, beliefs, God, spirit, etc. all take on the meaning that that community gives them—meanings which help give that community its identity by referring to something beyond that community. As Karen Armstrong in her book, A History of God, points out, the word ‘God’ has no inherent meaning. Here I am not concerned with such communities of faith.

‘Spiritual’, I suggest, can usefully be defined from my counseling perspective functionally as follows: ‘Anything can be considered spiritual for an individual if it helps that individual define himself or herself by referring to something beyond—something transcendent.’ And if it is transcendent for an individual (and thus can never be adequately conceptualized—here, I think the Buddhists have it right), there is no way a counselor could know what it is—the counselor can only observe the effect that has on an individual. The finger pointing to the moon contains no information about the moon except for a hint about the moon’s existence. The ‘spirit blows where it wills; you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it is going’; so with the effect of the spiritual on a client. The counselor can enter into the paradigm the client has constructed but never know the ‘source’ of the effect that the spiritual has on the client.

If something does not include a relationship to the transcendent, then the word ‘spiritual’ takes on more of a marketing force, not really adding any real information. Like a contestant on a TV quiz show who says, ‘And in the audience is my beautiful wife, Ann.’ I always think, your ‘beautiful wife’ as distinguished from your ‘ugly wife’? The word beautiful adds no information about wife, only about how I feel about her and want you to think about her.

Note that this definition implies that not everyone is spiritual—many individuals define themselves without using any relationship with something transcendent.
My difficulty with the word ‘prayer’ is again I don’t know what counts as prayer. In a study of VO2 max uptake using a stationary bike, if the subject chanted ‘Jesus Christ be with me’ or ‘One, two, three, four’, ‘There is no God but Allah’ their VO2 max uptake would increase the same over those who did not say anything. That certainly is an interesting result but let’s not obscure it by saying it is anything more than an interesting aspect of the body/mind connection.

Reports of studies that purport to show that prayer is effective never define what counts as prayer. If prayer consists of thinking or saying out loud comforting or healing words or some other words, then the results should report that by saying those words, physical or emotional healing is enhanced. If a basketball coach ‘prays’ with his team before a game, do they think that some ‘angel’ or ‘god’ will hear their prayer and guide more of the shots into the basket; or is it a way of strengthening their power as a team and each individual’s commitment to the game? If the former, then it is spiritual; if the latter, then it is social and psychological. I want to restrict the use of the word prayer to acts that can be considered ‘spiritual’. And for prayer to be ‘spiritual’, it must somehow relate an individual to that which is beyond. And then ‘that which is beyond’, whatever it might be, responds by affecting the outcome.

On the one hand, if that which is beyond/transcendent could be discerned, described, identified, conceptualized, or identified, then it would no longer be transcendent. On the other hand, I believe that that which is beyond (that which is truly spiritual) can be stronger than any other force there is: it was the source of much of the motivation and power of the civil rights movement to change society in the 50’s and 60’s because rational thought claimed there was no such hope; it has been the source of energy behind most genocides; it has helped individuals endure situations which medicine claim would kill anyone (just read Viktor Frankl’s, Man’s search for meaning). And to bring that potential power into a counseling session either is sacrilegious and dangerous or it denies the real potential of that which is spiritual.

The transcendent is a huge source of power for good and evil. Its power is greater than sex or money. And if having sex or gaining a pecuniary advantage with a client (forces we can understand) are unethical, then surely joining with a client as he or she relates to that which is transcendent for them (=prayer as I understand it) (forces which we have no idea about; because if we did, they wouldn’t be transcendent) as they define their very identity, would be many times more inappropriate.

In dealing with that which is transcendent, the first metaphor, man-the-law maker is the most appropriate metaphor. Relating to that which is transcendent cannot use man-the-maker metaphor because that requires an image of the ideal and if there were such an image, then it wouldn’t be transcendent. Here the Israelites got it right in forbidding any image of JHWH, the one who is transcendent. They even exclude the use of the third metaphor used in ethical thinking, man-in-dialogue, by forbidding even the pronouncement of the name of their God.

So in ethical systems using the legal metaphor, there are ethical principles which are either right or wrong. Being sexual with a client is one of them; praying with a client, in my judgment, is another.

Ray McKinnis is a counselor with a special interest in 'spirituality beyond religion' and veterans 'beyond PTSD' with a website at

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